It was a picture of domestic bliss. The man, in between sips of coffee, teased his daughter with a biscuit. The wife, holding on to a piece of buttered toast, smiled at nothing in particular. They were obviously on holiday, and even more obviously happy. They were seated at the table across from us in the dining area of the B&B we were staying at.
“Do you think he would cheat on her?”asked my friend. Before I could answer, she went on, “Sure they seem content now, but... in all my life I do not know of a single relationship where one of the partners has not strayed at some point, to some extent.” I did not ask whether she included her own marriage of 30 years in that analysis, letting her continue, “I wonder if my husband has ever had an affair. If he has, I would rather he never tell me. After all this time, it doesn’t matter. I hope Kalpana’s husband will be able to put her affair into perspective too.”
Kalpana is a common friend. She has been married for 18 years, of which the last two involved an affair with a family friend. The affair was what is termed an ‘emotional’ one. Long phone conversations, an occasional lunch rendezvous, holding hands under the table at a coffee shop... All the things Kalpana’s husband was always “too busy” for. He had recently discovered the affair after chancing upon her itemised mobile phone bill.
Infidelity is not restricted to sexual betrayals, whether real [one-night stands, long term affairs] or virtual [instant messaging, online pornography]. It can include acts that violate the emotional exclusivity of a committed relationship as well. However, the meaning of infidelity can only be defined by the individuals in a relationship, based on their mutual understanding of what is acceptable or tolerable and what is not.
Unfortunately, most people in a committed relationship do not discuss these boundaries. Complete fidelity is expected and is accepted as the norm. However, if we go by what surveys have to say, monogamy is human but humans are not monogamous. According to one survey, 52 per cent of Indians have cheated on their partner with an ex-girlfriend/boyfriend, 38 per cent with a neighbour, 16 per cent with a college friend and 13 per cent with a colleague.
Even if an affair does not involve physical intimacy, its discovery can be devastating. Research has shown that men are more disturbed by sexual infidelity whereas women by emotional infidelity [Harris, 2003]. Whatever the case may be, the experience is traumatic for both partners.
Kalpana felt guilty but also angry. Although they lived under the same roof, her husband had built a wall around himself. This happened all because he was emotionally unavailable, she reasoned. But her husband was too distraught to see the affair from her perspective. He was jealous; his self-esteem shattered. He contemplated separation from his wife for a prolonged period.
The effects experienced post-discovery of an affair are at times similar to that of Post-traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]—flashbacks, depression, emotional numbness, insomnia, irritability, loss of interest in regular activities and avoidance of places or people that evoke thoughts of the traumatic event.
For Kalpana and her husband, divorce was not an option because of the children. In India, most often a couple decides to give their relationship a second chance because of societal, family and cultural pressures. As per a survey conducted by a leading magazine in 2010, only 14 per cent Indians would end the marriage if they found out their spouse was unfaithful. These figures do not mean that the couples who choose to continue to live together do so happily.
Picking up the pieces and patching up a relationship takes time and effort. Psychologists suggest:
- Maintain healthy eating and sleeping patterns, exercise regularly, avoid excess caffeine, alcohol and any other addictive substances.
- Practise yoga or simple deep breathing exercises that can help calm your mind and relieve some of the tension in the body.
- Write your feelings down in a journal or as a letter to your partner. It is, however, not obligatory to share the same.
- Take a break if you find yourself in a heated argument, and only resume the discussion once a calmer state of mind has been achieved.
- Follow fair fighting rules like getting your thoughts organised before starting a conversation, listening to your partner, acknowledging feelings, not taking recourse to physical violence or name calling, respecting your partner, focusing only on the current issue and taking time out to relax.
- Introspect on the aspects of the relationship that could have led to the affair, and on the areas, communication for instance, that you and your partner need to work on for a healthier relationship.
- Understand what you and your partner expect from each other in terms of household chores, expression of love, parenting, sex or communication. Unmet expectations can lead to stagnation and frustration.
- Read books and articles on the subject that open your mind and introduce you to different perspectives. Share those thoughts with your partner so that you both are on the same page.
Visit a marital therapist if there is a need for an unbiased mediator
If you have had an affair:
- Be patient. Your partner might ask for reassurance and accountability more than you expected.
- Take responsibility for your actions without blaming anyone.
- Don’t get defensive. Apologise for the hurt and pain caused to your partner.
- Reassure your partner of your commitment.
If your partner has had an affair:
- Do not resort to self-destructive modes of recovery like drinking alcohol or smoking excessively. Find productive ways to cope like exercising or other healthy relaxation methods.
- Avoid acts of vengeance or ill-treatment towards your partner.
- Protect your self-esteem. Though the betrayal happened, try to focus on the context in which it took place. Avoid taking the blame for the affair.
For friends and family:
- Be aware of your own beliefs about affairs and infidelity before advising.
- Be supportive and empathetic.
- Do not judge the person who has had the affair.
- Do not keep secrets from either side of the party.
- Avoid becoming a mediator between the two partners.
- Encourage the couple to make their own decisions and seek professional help in case of symptoms of mental illness or suicidal tendencies.
Just found out that your partner had an affair?
- Tell yourself that the emotions you are experiencing are expected but that these feelings of shock and resentment will fade with time.
- Maintain your self-care routine.
- Avoid making any impulsive, important decisions, especially about the predicament of your relationship.
- Do not probe into the intimate and intricate details of the affair; it will cause you more pain than comfort.
- Be aware of things/situations that can trigger flashbacks, like phone bills and text messages. Stay away from those areas.
- Avoid being alone if you have suicidal thoughts.
- Be in touch with a trustworthy friend you can confide in or lean on for support.
- Contact a therapist/counsellor to help you deal with the trauma.
This was first published in the May 2012 issue of Complete Wellbeing.
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